Today is the Feast of Saint Giles, who started life as a rich young man, became a hermit in the woods of France, was persuaded to become an abbot and ended up as one of the best-loved Saints in Mediaeval Europe.
The legend goes that S. Giles took up residence in a cave in the woods of France, and lived a life of simplicity and poverty as a hermit. His holiness was recognised by the animals in the forest, who provided for his needs, and especially by a young hind (or deer) who became his special friend.
One day, the local King and his entourage were out hunting, and began to chase the deer. She fled into the cave, and into the arms of the Saint; but the King (or possibly one of his knights) shot an arrow after her.
The King, chastened, offered the Saint care and medicine, but Giles refused, and instead prayed for the healing of both himself and his gentle friend.
The King soon began to visit Saint Giles in his little cave for teaching and counsel; and, as his story spread, so did others. So, little by little, the hermit found himself surrounded by followers and companions until he became the de facto Abbot of a monastic community.
Because of the Saint’s wound, his ability to heal, and his gentle care of the defenceless hind, he became the Patron of the sick and the poor, and a number of miraculous cures were recorded at his shrine. His insistence on living outside of the city walls also led to his patronage of others who were marginalised in Mediaeval society, particularly cripples and lepers.
As his cultus grew, churches and social care centres for cripples and lepers were built in his name. Many English Mediaeval cities had two churches just outside the city wall: a Saint Giles for lepers and a Saint Mary Magdalen for prostitutes.
Healing wells were also placed under his patronage; Camberwell, where we grew up, was one such (Camber is an old English word for cripple), and a church dedicated to Saint Giles has stood there since time immemorial – there’s even a record of a church on the site in the Domesday Book.
In Fourteenth Century Germany, the terrible effects of the Black Death caused the people to group together a number of Saints to intercede for them and their domestic animals. This group became known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and Saint Giles was there among them.
Saint Giles is unique amongst the Fourteen, in being the only one not to die a martyr’s death. But then martyrdom, as the Vicar so often reminds us, is not about death; it’s about witnessing. We can’t think of a better advert for the love of Christ than someone who protects his animal companions, even at the risk of his own life.
So, all you human readers, if you are lucky enough to live with a cat or a dog or a deer, remember to follow the example of the holy hermit. Love them, protect them from harm, keep them safe and warm.
Oh, never mind. We’ll just have to raid the cupboards ourselves.